Chris Stedman is an atheist, and in addition to (or part of) his atheism he is what has been termed an ‘accommodationist’. The exact meaning of this term is difficult to pin down as it seems to have been coined as a rather vague pejorative. The definition on Wikipedia is roughly identical to that of ‘NOMA‘, which isn’t really the same as the charge levelled at Stedman.
Recently, an excerpt of his soon to be released book Faitheist appeared in Salon, and received quite a bit of criticism in the blogosphere. Much of this criticism seems personal or sarcastic, and so I’m not really interested in examining it here. I also don’t intend to highlight every point of agreement or disagreement. For instance, I don’t think the term ‘New Atheism’ is a helpful one, and I’m a fan of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris (even though I disagree a fair bit with the latter). What I do want to do is ask whether there is anything to be learned from Stedman’s excerpt, and whether there is anything that can be said for his brand of ‘accommodationism’.
What is Accommodationism?
So first of all we must work out what this term ‘accommodationism’ means in the context of Stedman’s view. Consider this paragraph from the excerpt:
Just as I’ve personally reclaimed “queer” from those who have used it in an attempt to discount the legitimacy of my identity, I now reclaim “faitheist.” If such a label insinuates that I am interested in both exploring godless ethics and identifying and engaging shared values with the religious — in putting “faith” in my fellow human beings and our shared potential to overcome the false dichotomies that keep us apart — then I am all for it.
I presume that Stedman is using the term ‘faitheist’ in the same way that his opponents use ‘accommodationist’ and that they are synonymous. The interesting part of the above quote to me is “identifying and engaging shared values with the religious”. What does he mean by this? I suppose that if there’s a political issue supported by both an atheist and a theist, accommodationism is the view that they should work together for that goal. However that seems to be a rather mild claim; do we not already do this? Surely there’s no reason to decline help from theists in one’s political activism. This was one of my criticisms of ‘Atheism+’: when you’re fighting for a political ideal such as ‘social justice’, it seems like an arbitrary entry requirement to discriminate on the basis of religious belief. So I doubt that’s really Stedman’s controversial claim.
However this seems more controversial:
… atheism must move beyond defining itself — both in thought and in practice — in opposition to religion.
Prima facie I agree with Stedman. Atheism doesn’t itself entail any ill thoughts towards religion. Yet, the stronger claim and one I think Stedman endorses, is that atheists ought not oppose religion. For the purposes of this post I will take this to be what is meant by ‘faitheism’ or ‘accommodationism’.
Can Accommodationism be Justified?
The obvious objection to Stedman’s accommodationism is that religion is often used as a justification for harmful actions (example), and so we should oppose it for that reason. Stedman replies that religion has both good and bad effects; to oppose religion on these grounds is to ignore the “nuance and complexity” in the diverse religious beliefs around the world. I think there’s some truth to this. I myself have stopped attacking religion as a whole on this basis for essentially the same reasons that Stedman outlines.
Another possible objection will depend on the answer to a particular question: what counts as ‘opposing’ religion in this context? Does it include questioning the truth claims put out by religious scholars and authorities? Surely not, for obvious reasons, and I presume Stedman would not want us to feel unable to question the truth of religion at all. A more charitable reading might be that atheists should feel free to question and criticise religion, so long as they do so in moderation. Remember that there are points we may agree on, and goals that we share. As Stedman asks, “Can we learn to seek out our commonalities instead of solely fixating on our differences?”
I want to agree in part with this idea, but I can’t get fully on board with it. I certainly agree that there are similarities and shared opinions between many atheists and religious people. I’ve always held (at least for the last few years) that I’d rather someone was a theist than apathetic, since it seems to me to be important (if true) and an interesting philosophical question in many ways. Looking for points of agreement is a productive way of joining together to help progress those ideas. I also agree with Stedman that:
…many atheists demand [to be taken seriously] at the expense of talking to our religious peers in a way that affords them dignity and respect.
We shouldn’t disrespect somebody as a result of their overall religious belief – we can challenge their ideas if we wish, but should do so without personal attacks (just as we should with most issues).
The point at which my view diverges from Stedman’s is that I think sometimes it is fine to concentrate on the differences between atheism and religion. What I have in mind is discourse where the ultimate goal is ‘truth’ or a better understanding of the world – or philosophy. One of my hobbies is arguing against theism partly because I find it enjoyable and enlightening to do so, but also because I think arguing for one’s own opinions for the sake of truth is a good thing. I can do this without disrespecting religious believers as people and I can do it in the spirit of the philosophers of religion – specifically a robust and respectful discourse. I don’t feel the need to balance it in any way by (as Stedman puts it) “seeking common ground” with the religious. Now Stedman might not have a problem with this and if so, my position is more or less aligned with his. But if he does think I should spend less time worrying about the philosophical tension between my worldview and that of the religious then I respectfully disagree.
As far as Stedman goes, from my very limited knowledge of his ‘interfaith activism’, it seems to me to be to be a noble cause and I do intend to read his forthcoming book at some stage so I can learn a bit more about it. If he wishes to ‘seek common ground’ with the religious then I think that is a good thing and, while I don’t do such seeking myself, I consider myself at least accommodationist about accommodationism.